Published April 19th, 2023 at 6:00 AM6 minute read
Funmi Popoola continues to draw from the generosity that enveloped him two decades ago.
A nonprofit agency eased his culture shock when he immigrated from Nigeria to begin undergraduate studies at Wichita State University, helping with practical needs.
He carries that gratitude into his role as president and CEO of Goodwill of Western Missouri and Eastern Kansas.
“I think about what my trajectory could have looked like 20 years ago, coming into a society which is totally different from where you were raised,” Popoola said. “So I am forever thankful and committed to this work for that reason.”
Generosity is Popoola’s personal brand and a mission of Goodwill.
But worrisome trends are afoot, part of a shift being measured and dissected in American philanthropy.
Goodwill donations are down — especially bigger ticket household items such as electronics and furniture.
You don’t just buy a lamp, a coat or a chair when you visit a Goodwill store. Your purchase funds another person’s access to help with resumes, computer literacy and a host of other resources, preparing them for job interviews and helping place them into positions.
But giving of tangible items was off from previous months by more than 11% in February, Popoola said.
He’s worried it’s a trend.
The impact is felt quickly because 88 cents of every dollar raised by a sale at a Goodwill store goes to programming.
Goodwill officials surmise that at least some of the drop-off may be related to recent changes in tax law, which means that fewer people can deduct their charitable donations. Instead, they take a larger standard deduction.
Nationally, the organization supports the Charitable Giving Coalition, which is pressing for passage of the Charitable Act, a bill introduced in the U.S. Senate that would allow for a universal charitable deduction for all taxpayers.
For now, Popoola’s concerned enough to devise a workaround to encourage people to donate gently used items. He hopes to make it more convenient to be generous.
By summer, a box truck wrapped with the Goodwill brand will be sent into neighborhoods to gather items from people. And three new stores will open this year, complementing 17 existing locations in the region.
“Workforce development is key for us,” Popoola said. “Upskilling and reskilling members of the community is critical. We have the retail as a funnel, or a funding mechanism. The mission is really what we do.”
Goodwill’s struggle may be a canary in the coal mine. Philanthropy is changing across America.
Fewer people are donating cash or goods. And a larger proportion of the giving comes from the wealthiest among us.
There’s a growing concern about the loss of donors from within the middle and lower economic levels of society.
Some experts worry that a deeper cultural shift is occurring, one where charity will be less of a valued norm for households.
And that could change America.
The shifts aren’t easy to see at first glance.
An estimated $484.85 billion was given to U.S. charities in 2021, according to Giving USA: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2021.
“Thanks to a strong year for the stock market and GDP, giving increased by 4%,” the report noted. “Although giving grew in current dollars, it remained essentially flat after adjusting for inflation.”
But more ominous signals were detected in a poll cited by the Charitable Giving Coalition.
A September 2022 poll by Independent Sector found nearly half (49%) of respondents who are very concerned about inflation said they planned to give less to charity in 2022 than they did in 2021.
In addition, pandemic relief measures have now expired.
Goodwill’s donation slump might also be explained via behavioral economics, including differences within social classes, lingering impacts on work from the pandemic and influences that spark or discourage the giving of tangible items.
“Donations remain the lifeline of what we do,” Popoola said. “Donations go a long way in making impacts and changing lives.”
Wrestle with this factoid to understand what’s happening to philanthropy across America.
Three people — Elon Musk, Mackenzie Scott and Michael Bloomberg — accounted for $10 billion of what was given by individuals last year in the country.
The uber-wealthy are increasingly playing a larger role in donations, said Josh Birkholz, chair of the Giving USA Foundation.
“You’re seeing the growth of the donor-advised fund segment, which tends to be the middle-to-upper-end of donors,” Birkholz said. “Donor-advised funds make up 10% of giving in the U.S. now. So we’re continuing to see it becoming a thing of the wealthy.”
Donor-advised funds allow people to contribute cash, securities or other assets to charities that they specifically wish to support.
Charities have gotten better at encouraging donations from high-end donors, Birkholz said.
They’ve done so by emphasizing messages of impact, what the donation can accomplish.
But this has possibly been done at the expense of improving messaging to less affluent households, he said.
“There’s a lot of us that are kind of pushing the other way and trying to figure out how do we encourage giving,” Birkholz said.
Birkholtz is CEO of the consulting firm BWF and is considered an expert in modern development strategies. He wrote the book, “Fundraising Analytics: Using Data to Guide Strategy.”
There’s also evidence that giving as a norm, as just another part of living in the U.S., is ebbing.
“Maybe we’re forgetting our history, where giving was just sort of a cultural value,” Birkholz said.
The number of donors dropped by 7%, even as donations increased 6.2%, according to an October 2022 quarterly report by the Fundraising Effectiveness Project. The project is supported by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Foundation for Philanthropy.
The conflicting trends are because high-end donors are giving more while fewer people give.
“With so much volatility in donor acquisition and retention now would be an excellent time to invest in broad grassroots engagement,” according to Woodrow Rosenbaum, chief data officer at Giving Tuesday, in a news release accompanying the report.
“Maybe we’re forgetting our history, where giving was just sort of a cultural value.”Josh Birkholz, chair of the Giving USA Foundation
Some philanthropy experts suggest recent changes in tax law may be negatively affecting giving, at least among lower- and middle-class households.
Most notably, itemizing charitable deductions no longer has the same tax benefit.
An estimated 90% of taxpayers are no longer able to deduct charitable donations, due to changes in the tax law.
But there’s scant evidence that those tax changes have hurt overall giving.
For the second consecutive year, giving was higher than levels found before the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Acts of 2017, according to Giving USA: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2021.
Even so, staff at Goodwill are pondering how new tax laws might be discouraging folks from purging household items and dropping them off at a Goodwill store.
Last year, Goodwill nationally saw donations from nearly 106 million people.
Rain sprinkled on a recent evening as a car pulled up to the curb outside the Goodwill store at 4824 N. Oak Trafficway.
Immediately, a worker was outside, wheeling over a large laundry-style cart to fill.
Anecdotally, one of those workers said that she had seen far fewer cars pulling up to that store’s curb lately.
A store manager said it’s more difficult to see the impact within the store, where racks of clothing awaited shoppers.
Further to the back of the store bookshelves were half full.
And just one child’s bicycle hung on a rack that was designed to hold many more.
At the very back of the North Oak location is the Career Resource Center. It looks like a classroom, well-lit with desks and plenty of space to work.
There, people can get help with job searches, online applications, resume writing and training for job interviews.
The services are free.
Popoola wants to serve at least 3,000 people in workplace development programs this year. It’s part of a wide range of programs, including Goodwill’s Artemis Institute, a partnership with area technology companies.
His goal is to get people not only ready to work but to ensure that they have job security and can continue to find career opportunities.
And the new truck, which the Black & Veatch engineering firm is helping to acquire and set up, will help with spreading that message. The truck will also be available to go into neighborhoods needing help from Goodwill.
“I just see the power of these donations and it changes lives every day,” Popoola said. “And I think the more people are aware of the role that plays in transforming these lives, the more fulfillment we get out of supporting our stores.”
Mary Sanchez is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS.